Friday, December 17, 2010

Wrong About the Odyssey

I recently read the Iliad and the Odyssey, back to back, in their entirety. I'd encountered bits and pieces of them in high school and college, reading excerpts necessary for understanding subsequent works (damn near all of Western literature if you're to trust some sources, but that's a different essay), and I've read Joyce's Ulysses which uses the structure of the Odyssey to tell the story of hapless and heroic Leopold Bloom. There is a lot to say about both epic poems, especially when re-imagining and re-interpreting the events and images in terms of contemporary society, but one thing above all else stood out for me; how wrong I was about the Odyssey.

Being an object of culture, referenced in all media and all different levels of artistic expression, just about everyone knows something about the Odyssey. We have a cultural familiarity whether we've read the Odyssey, read excerpts of it in school, or just encountered it in references in movies and comic books. We all have an idea of what the Odyssey is about and what happens in it. Well, we're wrong.

The Odyssey is a story of the strife endured by Odysseus as he struggled against the gods to return home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. However, of the ten years it takes him to get back to Ithaca from Troy, seven are spent in the strife and struggle of being the lover of the nymph Calypso, where she fed him ambrosia, had sex with him every night (and not just regular sex, but nymph sex), kept him from aging, and promised to make him immortal if only he stayed with her. (Did I mention it was nymph sex?) That's 70% of his time abroad. May all of your struggles and strife be 70% nymph sex.

While we're on the topic of what Odysseus actually spent his time doing during his trip, he spent a whole lot of narrative time with the Phaenicians, who were not cannibals, or opium addicts, or man-eating monsters. No sea beasts. No deceitful women. No angry gods raining petty vengeance upon a powerless mortal. Rather, they are a wealthy and generous sea merchants who treat Odysseus to a massive feast, imply that he could marry the daughter of the king, and shower him with more gifts than he won in all of his plunder of Troy (which of course, went down with his ship) before returning him to Ithaca on a ship so fast and so smooth that he sleeps through the entire journey.

Furthermore, a full third of the poem takes place after Odysseus has returned to Ithaca and involves his plot to deal with the suitors, a goal “nudged” along by Athena. To recap; 70% of the journey was spent as the boy toy of a nymph, another big chunk of the story takes place on Ithaca, another substantial percent is taken up with the Phaenicians, and there's a whole bunch of stuff about Telemachus that doesn't even involve Odysseus at all. The big events from the Odyssey that we all know about even if we haven't read it; the Cyclops, the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus in Hades, Circe and the whole turning the crew into pigs thing, are a very small part of the actual story as it is told.

Cultural memory is a process of extrusion; as an artifact whether it's an epic poem, story, person, or idea is transferred around a culture its complexity is shaved off and members of the culture are aware of a simplified version of the entity. What a cultural artifact becomes when most in the culture do not have direct contact with it, is important, not just in understanding Homer or Shakespeare, but in more general issues of society. How many of our political decisions are based on the cultural artifacts of the American Revolution? How many of our politicians appeal to concepts of “freedom” and “liberty” without any examination of the documents and events that built those concepts? The most direct example of this is the constant claim that the United States is a “Christian Nation,” a claim that can be made when the distinction between, “a spirituality based in Christian mythology,” (which is what most of the Founders actually had) and “Christianity” is lost or ignored.

I haven't met anybody with the time to read every major readable cultural artifact and the point is not that everyone should feel obligated to read everything (there's a lot of Shakespeare out there, and frankly the Federalist Papers get a little dry after a while), but that we realize that what we know of all of these artifacts are simplified versions. This is fine when enjoying art or entertainment that references these entities, but this is not fine when, say, making a policy decision or establishing a personal belief structure. In terms of important decisions, it seems reasonable to ask people to do a little research.

Oh, and the Trojan Horse thing; doesn't happen in either of them. A bard mentions it in a song about the Trojan War (a song Odysseus requested). Nor does Achilles die his famous death. The Illiad actually ends with the funeral for Hector, the only honest to god decent human being in the entire story (No, seriously, Agammemon is an arrogant jerk, Achilles sulks in his tent while his friends die because he didn't get the slave girl he wanted, and well, Odysseus himself sacked an innocent city on his way home from the war and executed servant girls who were born after he left for Troy for sleeping with suitors.) who valiantly fought hordes of invaders and spent his last night before he knew he was going to die with his wife and infant son. And what does he get for his bravery and general decency; he gets his dead body dragged back and forth in front of the gates of Troy behind a chariot. In the extruded versions of these epic poems it's Achilles and Odysseus who are thought of as the heroes, but after actually reading them, Hector is the one worthy of respect.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Story of Big Government

The first major expansion of federal power in our nation's history came early in, well, our nation's history, when the Constitution was ratified, replacing the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation barely constituted a national government as it had virtually none of the power we associate with, well, national government. In the context of history, this was by far the biggest expansion of federal power over society, at least in this country, in that federal power as we know it was incorporated. There was one other major expansion but I'll get to that later.

Almost from the word go, the government experienced a still unabated piecemeal expansion. In order to solidify a truly national economy, especially in the face of Revolutionary War debt, the Bank of the United States (which was eventually followed by a Second Bank of the United States and a period of open banking before a panic in 1907 lead to the establishment of the Federal Reserve) was established. Thomas Jefferson wasn't sure if the president had the power to purchase land, but he couldn't turn down France's offer and thus expanded federal power with the Louisiana Purchase. The state of Alaska (from which a certain “small government” proponent supposedly is kept visually aware of Russo-American relations) might not have existed otherwise.

The second of the two major expansions of federal power happened in the Civil War, when the fundamental right of States to leave the United States of America was eradicated. The Civil Rights amendments were a coda that expanded the federal government's power over how states interacted with their residents, but, as we learned from the Jim Crow era, this expansion wasn't enough to ensure legal dignity for all Americans. Despite what some might say, with the debatable exception of the establishment of income tax, which required a constitutional amendment, no expansion of federal power since has matched this one because it ceded to the federal government the power to determine whether or not states were subject to its power.

The industrial revolution, the urbanization of society, the massive amount of immigration, the development of the stock market, and other societal changes created an entirely new economy with entirely new problems that society, as it was, did not have the ability to solve. In response to this new economy, government expanded again through a series of regulations and then, in order to hold society together after that economy collapsed, through massive infrastructure projects and other spending initiatives. The ultimate result of the Depression (which was ended by an even larger government spending program commonly referred to as “World War II”) was a system of regulations on finance and production and a material safety net in order to ensure the Depression never happened again, including the third rails of politics, Social Security and Medicare.

There were expansions of federal power in response the Cold War such as the Committee on Unamerican Activities. The tragedy of Jim Crow was resolved by another expansion of Federal power most dramatically demonstrated by the National Guard forcibly integrating Central High School in Little Rock, and culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Along the way, the government continued to accumulate regulatory agencies such as the EPA and OSHA. The EPA, of course, was established by everyone's favorite tax and spend liberal, Richard Nixon. Of course, not all of these expansions of government were institutionalized. There certainly isn't anything in the Constitution or in legislation about selling weapons in exchange for hostages, for example. There have been more contemporary expansions of government as well, the biggest of which was not the recent Health Care Reform, but the original Patriot Act, which gave the government far more power to observe and detain American citizens than it has had since the Alien and Sedition Acts. And this doesn't even include the size and effect on our society of the ever expanding American military or the actions taken by the CIA (See Legacy of Ashes for that story).

Another way to tell this story is as a story of economic crisis. The private market could not free the slaves. It couldn't prevent factory machines from pulling the arms off of children or stop factory owners from locking their workers in. It couldn't keep human fingers out of our sausages and rat poison out of our medicine. It couldn't stop companies from lying to consumers. For some reason it couldn't teach investors that it was a bad idea to buy stock with the projected dividends of other stocks. Since we're on the topic, the private economy also couldn't stop companies from dumping poison into our water and spewing toxins into our air. Regardless of whether the administration in power was Federalist, Bull Moose, Republican, or Democratic, they almost always responded to these crises through expansions of government power and influence.

This means that the story of “big government” then is not one of liberal or Democrat power grabs, but the accumulation of responses to economic and societal crises. Whenever a Republican or conservative accuses a Democrat or liberal of something about “big government” they are completely ignoring the history of the development of the United States Federal Government. What we have today is the result of two hundred plus years of people responding to problems.

I have no problem with arguing about the costs and benefits of particular government policies, but the “big government” label doesn't do that. The debate between big government and small government was settled over a hundred years ago with the Civil War. My problem with the Republican technique of the “big government” card is that they use it to argue against a proposed Democrat policy without actually arguing against the policy itself. Rather than helping to determine whether a particular proposed regulation will actually stabilize investment banking for example, they simply argue that “big government” as an abstract concept is inherently negative. This argument itself is bad for governance. It's not that I want Republicans to rubber stamp Democrat legislation, but the proposed policies cannot be improved if the opposition led critique doesn't actually engage the policies themselves.

This is a particular example of a more general problem with our political discourse. The sound-byte has no room for nuance and debates have become ballets of sound-bytes, and somehow, despite the presence of three 24-hour news networks, no one seems to have the time to establish the historic context of a given issue. I don't have a solution for this general problem. So much goes into our inability to have productive political debates and so many forces benefit from that inability that a solution will be long in coming. But hopefully, the next time you hear someone try to end an argument by arguing against “big government,” I hope you'll remember this story.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How Sport Lasts

I was at a bar over Thanksgiving weekend with my friends from home, (Lewiston, ME for those keeping track) as Thanksgiving weekend, for whatever reason, has always been a big homecoming for my set of Lewiston friends. The day after Thanksgiving we play (or enact a reasonable approximation of) a game of touch football at the field at the middle school and many of us go to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game that same night and head out to the bars to catch up afterward. There is a way this essay could go that really focuses on that touch football game, exploring how little the game itself, or at least, how “a game of football” is usually understood, matters to the event, but that's not what I'm going to talk about, though, in a way, (sorry for all the commas,,,,) that's all I'm going to talk about.

After the football game, after the hockey game, and for me and a few others anyway, at the second bar of the night, I ran into a couple of people I hadn't seen in years, perhaps in over a decade. They were cousins to each other, were both married, and had children. One was living in Hinesburg, VT near Burlington so we were able to chat about that for awhile, and one was living not too far from where he grew up, in Bowdoin, ME. There was a new beard involved. We all had jobs. Wives were introduced. The conversation broke up when I had to get a beer. One of them left before I made my way back (which took awhile, given the other people I ran into) and one of them I was able to properly wish good-night and good luck when I was on my way out. The story here isn't in how the night as a whole went, how my conversation went with these two friends, or how the night ended. The story here is how I was greeted, how we greeted each other.

There was a moment of recognition, an offered handshake that turned into a hug and then I was embraced by both of them and we were jumping up and down in the bar and they were shouting “Cook! Cook! Cook!” Despite the askance looks of a couple of wives and a few of the other patrons within earshot, and despite the obviously ridiculous visual the whole event produced, I knew exactly why what was happening was happening.

It made sense because, the three of us played youth hockey together. In Lewiston, youth hockey used to be organized by the various parishes in the city and even when the league became it's own entity, it preserved certain aspects of the old parish system; the team you played on was determined by where you lived, which meant that most kids played with the same kids year after year. So Johnny, JP and I played for Holy Family, mascot the Bears, from when we were about 6 or 7 until when were about 12 or 13. This means that we haven't been teammates for almost eighteen years and yet, whatever connection we had was still strong enough to produce a jumping, chanting, public display of man-love. The question, of course, is why did the emotion of that very old connection stay that strong?

I'm sure there's a developmental psychology answer about formative years and early social tribes, but, frankly, I don't find that answer particularly interesting. Here's my answer; we played hockey together when we still believed we could play in the NHL.

Looking back now, I know there was no time in my life, when I had a chance to play professional hockey. I never had even a fraction of the raw talent necessary. But what do you know at 10 and 11? We were getting up at ungodly hours in the morning on weekends to go to practices at an outdoor rink where we needed to wear nylons under our pads and put tape over the ear holes in our helmets to fend off frostbite. Our parents were paying ridiculous fees, buying expensive equipment, and driving us all over the state. We were playing in tournaments, winning them, losing them, getting trophies, having end of the season parties, getting injured, crying over losses, and dreaming of a life where we got to play hockey forever.

Of course, there are ways to undercut the general conclusion I'm coming to; Johnny and JP are cousins who have always been as much friends as relatives; Johnny was always the top goalie on our team and I was always the top defenseman; we won the Lion's Tournament together, which was the Lewiston league's championship; we won a youth state title together; but I still think the universal in this situation outweighs the particular.

We were participants in each others' dreams as children. When we didn't know anything about the world, when all we knew of hockey was what happened when we played and the fantasy we created by interpreting what we watched on TV, when we were without the scale of worldiness, when we hadn't learned that not everything was possible, we were teammates.

Of course none of us ended up in the NHL. I was good enough to make a pretty good high school hockey team and Johnny was good enough to give Juniors at least a try. I managed to scrape together a few pond hockey games here and there and now live near a roller hockey rink where I occasionally shoot around by myself. JP found some guys to play with in Vermont and Johnny left before I could see if he still strapped the pads on every now and again.

At one point Johnny suggested a reunion game with the old Holy Family guys we played with. I live in Somerville, JP in Vermont, Johnny in Maine and who knows where all those others guys are. The logistics would be challenging even if we all didn't have the rest of our lives to manage (did I mention that both of them are fathers) even in the world of Facebook. I'd be shocked and overjoyed if something like that were ever organized. At the same time, I know exactly what Johnny said when he said that, and even though I can't explain the real meaning behind the statement, I completely agree with it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Food. You Eat. Why Not: Pick Your Own 2010

Any time you begin feeling smug about the accomplishments of humanity; space stations, microwaves, that kind of thing, remember, for humbleness sake, all of the activities in the world that are still weather dependent. There are the obvious ones like picnics, hikes, and spectating outdoor sporting events, less obvious ones such as long drives, job interviews (nothing like 95 degrees and humid to make anyone look disgusting) and commitments to reading major Russian novels over the winter (Just try it during a mild winter. It's possible but far from ideal.). For all our art and science, for all of our ability to control some of our environment, for all of our technological advancements, there are still events, essential or important, in our lives that can be dramatically affected by the weather.

Every year, at the end of the farm share season, our farmer (Steve) lets farm-sharers (?) pick their own vegetables on a Sunday after or around the last farmer's market at which he sells. It's a chance for us to see where our food comes from, to experience a sample-size of some of the toil that goes in to feeding us, and to take a whole bunch of food, essentially for free. Americans, in general, are so isolated from our food, that a yearly field trip to pick vegetables, whether you participate in a CSA or not, seems like something close to a civic duty. And it's a chance to eat a leaf of arugula you picked seconds earlier.

But, even though we've put a man on the moon, can accelerate particles to virtually the speed of light, and have most likely found water on Mars, the weather can really bring down a pick your own day. Nothing says “Let's just eat take out for the rest of our lives,” quite like a cold rainy day spent convincing yourself you have a political and fiduciary obligation to stay outside, be cold, and pick vegetables. This year, however, the weather was perfect. It was just warm enough that one (well, one with Viking heritage, at least) could get by without any heavy layers of clothing and cool enough that one could be comfortable in the pants and long sleeves that serve other vegetable picking purposes. Furthermore, the sun had reached at least the minimum level of brightness for the lizard part of my brain to believe it was a day worth leaving the den for, but it was never so bright that I wanted sunglasses. (Important, since I didn't have any.) I could certainly sympathize with our farmer if he spent most of the day grumbling about all the wet, dark, cold, miserable mornings he'd spent over the season picking our vegetables, while we come down for one day, one freaking day, out of the entire summer and get an absolutely perfect day.

I was sent off, with a shovel and a pair of shears as my particular implements of destruction, to the rented field a little ways off with the expressed goal of digging potatoes. At one point, I was actually running with the bucket and shovel, with the shears in my pocket, to hop in the back of a pick-up truck for a ride over to the field. I was willing to go alone because I had a great ambition to think while digging potatoes. I'd never thought while digging potatoes and since I'm an intellectual, and one way to define an intellectual is as an individual who finds new situations in which to think, I was oddly excited by the possibility. (Anything can be romanticized if you have enough time to prepare.) I had hoped that, much like the vibrant intellectual productivity of the long walk or at least the active stillness of splitting wood, digging potatoes would provide me with some kind of ancillary intellectual productivity; maybe formulating a few topics for this very blog, or solving some problems in other writing projects, or maybe some kind of intellectual progress with the books I was reading. Such was not the case. Though my brain was not a void during the harvest; I spent about an equal amount of time concerned with the practicals of digging potatoes (is that mold or intransigent dirt?) and thinking about what I should be thinking about since I'd been thinking for a week about the chance to do some thinking while I was digging potatoes.

If there is one empirical, unquestionable fact one learns from a pick your own day, one life lesson that persists in the varying circumstances of existence, it's this: the volume of your vegetables is variable. You'd think, being physical objects (massive in the particle physics sense) they'd stay the same size regardless of time of day, state of pickedness, size of your car's trunk, or capacity of your freezer. Vegetables are not supposed to change size, unless something dramatic involving blades and heat is done to them.

But they do. When you're in the field staring at the bounty of a farmer's labor stretching for lush yards around you in the knowledge that nearly all of that food is slated for compost, it looks like one could always use another bag of chard, another few potatoes, another stalk of Brussels sprouts. At the car, it looks like either one of your friends or one of the buckets of parsnips will have to be left behind. Of course, once you've Tetrised everything into the trunk, the vegetables shrink again and you consider, just for a second, running back for another handful of carrots or another bunch of beets. It's food. You eat. Why not.

It would be a far cry from exaggeration to say that the vegetables simply triple in size once they get to your kitchen. Vegetables you don't even remember picking appear at the bottom of bags and buckets. You didn't even see fennel anywhere and there some is, right under some turnips you're already regretting. You start to feel that particular strain of melancholy that mixes regret with exhaustion. However, a little blanching and freezing and a couple of beers later it seems like there were hardly any vegetables at all and you feel that particular strain of melancholy that mixes a resurgence of vitality with regret. Newton was wrong. Everything is quantum. And picking the cilantro leaves off their stems after all that damn near killed me.

Whether it's the weather (Everyone catch the Simpsons reference? Good.) or the labor, there is something primal in the satisfaction nestled in the soreness in one's lower back after a day spent picking the vegetables one plans on eating for the next six months. One has taken active, direct responsibility for one of the few things one absolutely needs to do. I'm sure I'll have a slightly different perspective after another bag of frozen kale for dinner in February, but then I'll dig up all the political, cultural, and socio-economic reasons for getting a farm share. For now, the greens are still fresh, my back is still sore, and pick your own 2010 was still a good time.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sci Fi Binge

I don't read a lot of Sci Fi, not because I harbor any distaste or disrespect for the genre, but because I've got a pretty full reading schedule and Sci Fi works just don't end up on that schedule very often. Every now and again though I get in the mood to just blast through a few of the genre's novels in a week or two long binge. Here's my take on the books I read on my last Sci Fi binge.

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez. Tweeking the philosophical work of Asimov on the ideas of robotic consciousness, Martinez creates a world where robots will occasionally and inexplicably be afflicted by the “free will glitch.” When this happens, the robots can apply for citizenship. It seems a perfectly rational system but it is stressed by the protagonist and hero of the novel, Mac. Mac is a robot afflicted with the “free will glitch,” which is all well and good, except that Max is a 7 ton killing machine invented by a mad scientist. Circumstances, as they so often do in fiction, embroil Mac in a mystery that progresses from a simple missing persons case to an all out alien invasion. Mutants. Mind-control. Robots. Vixens. It's got the flavor and texture of a pulp crime novel written on a different planet.

Along with the very well done, very funny entertainment of the novel, there's a current of comment on the nature of consciousness. First of all, we get a robot's take on human actions; a robot that can think and act for himself, but who still processes the data of the world as a computer would. He is a sympathetic other observing the emotional processing of the humans he interacts with. Furthermore, he begins to develop the ability to appropriate and utilize human emotional processing in his own decision making.

At it's core, The Automatic Detective is great entertainment, a kind of Asimov-light with a touch of the classic American hard-boiled detective story, but there's enough exploration of the human condition to give your brain something to do if you feel like using it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Set in a post-nuclear holocaust Southwest amongst an order of Christian monks committed to preserving the knowledge of the destroyed world, this Hugo Award winning novel is a brilliant exploration and investigation into our relationship with information. After the nuclear holocaust there was a backlash against knowledge of any kind, as science itself was blamed for the destruction of human civilization. Teachers, scientists, and books were destroyed in kind of second holocaust called “The Simplification.” Individuals and organizations, like the order of Leibowitz preserved as many books as they could by “booklegging” physical books and by memorizing the books they found.

The novel spans hundreds of years, chronicling how human civilization rebuilt itself and the role the monks played in that rebuilding as a sanctuary for knowledge. Politics. Science. Art. Superstition. Faith. Religion. Through snapshots of various time periods, Miller is able to paint a fairly complete picture of human society by highlighting its different aspects as they gain prominence over time. Ultimately, this is an extremely pessimistic book (don't finish it if there's any sharp objects or poisonous liquids close at hand) but that doesn't detract from its brilliance and the pleasure I took in reading it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz demonstrates the best of speculative fiction (it really isn't Sci Fi). By imagining a vastly different world, either through inventing one or extending contemporary circumstances to one of their possible conclusions, it teaches us about our world, almost like Aesop's fables. A Canticle for Leibowitz does just that. (Major bummer though, just as a heads up.)

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. I finished my binge with this one because I was almost certain that I would like it and I did. This is the story, primarily, of Bob Arctor (awful close to “actor” isn't it.) who is an undercover narcotics agent, eventually assigned to monitor himself (though a grander plan is implied by the end). This plot explores some pretty obvious concepts; the definition of identity, the relationship between criminals and law enforcement officers, and the nature of surveillance, but it explores these concepts better than just about any other work of literature.

But there's more to it than just a thought experiment (though a well done thought experiment can sustain an entire novel, but that's another essay). Along with the fully realized characters one expects from literature it also has the evocative technology one (at least I) reads Sci Fi for. My favorite of these is the “blur suit.” The blur suit is a camouflage suit that Bob wears to conceal his identity when he, as “Fred,” is reporting to the police, or when he needs to conceal himself more generally. However, it doesn't work by making the wearer invisible. Instead it flashes a fast moving series of images of human features. The result is that, though people will see that a person is there, no one will be able to describe what that person looks like.

What fascinates me most about Phillip K. Dick, though, is that his work incorporates an entire range of writing quality. Because he was a genius, and because he wrote at an amphetamine fueled pulp hack writer pace, the writing in his books ranges from godawful to absolutely beautiful. Sometimes within the same paragraph he can give the reader an entire tour of writing quality. Though this makes it hard to assess Dick's place in the canon of American literature, it makes him easy to appreciate because you have permission to read him on many levels. Because much of his work is written in pulp style, you can read it as pulp entertainment. And because the writing is sometimes beautiful and the ideas are often brilliant, you can also read his work as serious literature.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Difference between Cynicism and Hopelessness

Literature can do a lot of things for your brain; one of them is providing the means to distinguish and differentiate related concepts. (Of course, literature is also pretty good at dissolving differentiation, but that's another essay.) Two short, weird, brilliant, disturbing, unsettling novellas; The Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, when compared to each other show the differences between (and some of the inherent beauty in) cynicism and hopelessness.

The Beauty Salon is set in a semi-apocalyptic, probably Mexico City suffering from some kind of deadly plague. The story's narrator, hero maybe, protagonist definitely, is the transvestite proprietor of the titular salon, though he hasn't styled any hair in years. Instead he spends his time not really caring for men dying of the plague, and not really providing respite or hospice care as one would normally define respite or hospice care, and not really doing anything else for them either besides opening his the door to the salon and giving them a roof to die under. Instead he spends his time caring for an aquarium. He devotes all of his time, energy, and passion caring for, occasionally rare and exotic fish, while people are dying from the plague around him. Bellatin sets it up so you want to apply basic reading techniques to the fish; you want to see them as metaphors for something, human society maybe, but metaphors just don't seem to stick.

Because the narrator engages somehow with the forces in the world, because he chooses some kind of action, because he does something even though he doesn't see any chance for the world to improve, I think this is a cynical work. There isn't belief in a coming better world. None of the problems posed in the world and in the life of the narrator are resolved in any way by the end of the book. The men are still dying of the plague all around. But the work affirms the value of doing something even if that doing something is completely and utterly pointless. So the cynic might say, the world is not going to get better, but I'm going to do my thing anyway. In a way, this definition of cynicism, especially in relation to what we'll see about hopelessness, is not unlike how we often define bravery; being afraid of something but doing it anyway.

Shoplifting from American Apparel is different, not just from The Beauty Salon, but from everything else really. (And let's be honest, The Beauty Salon is pretty different as well.) It's about a young writer with a developing career who, well, just kinda, you know, does stuff. He chats online, he has girlfriends, he shoplifts from American Apparel, his work enjoys a level of success, he moves to New York, he meets people in real life that he's met online and he gives a reading in Florida where he sees a band, ends up kicking around with a few people he meets, and then, well, then it ends. In some ways it doesn't sound nearly as stark, bleak, and downright depressing as The Beauty Salon, but there's something different going on here. Or rather, there's nothing going on. Somehow Tao Lin has constructed a compelling story where stuff, you know, just kinda happens. His narrator and protagonist does stuff but none of it means anything, none of it has any significance. You get the sense that he's not doing stuff because he wants to or believes he should or feels some kind of responsibility to do it, but because biological reality demands doing something.

Hopelessness then is the belief that nothing you do matters, that there is no meaning in any action you can take. Sure you do things, just like the guy in Shoplifting from American Apparel, but not only to those things not mean anything in the GRAND SCHEME OF HUMAN ENDEAVOR, they don't mean anything to the person doing them either. In a way there is a romanticism to hopelessness, a martyrdom, as, (paradoxically but only in a particular way) it takes intensity and passion to not believe in anything. There is a poetic totality to hopelessness that, since we're distinguishing here, might distinguish it from apathy.

So the difference between cynicism and hopelessness is that cynicism allows for meaningful action in the face of one's inability to change the world for the better even if those actions are only meaningful to the one doing them, whereas hopeless does not. However, the concepts are joined by more than being a bit of a bummer; they produce very strange literature.

Literature is inherently more optimistic than cynical and more cynical than it is hopeless. By giving a work of literature to the world, you suggest a belief in your own ability to improve it and you assert the belief in the meaning of the action of writing a book. So works that centered around the antithesis of the act of producing the work are really weird to read. I read them both in one sitting each on separate long walks and the effect was, well, it's strange. Nothing really happened in Shoplifting and yet I keep thinking about Shoplifting without really knowing what it is to think about. And I still have no idea what to think about those fish. You want to make them a symbol for something but Bellatin wrote a work that resists reading symbolism into.

This is a very strange way of saying you should devote an afternoon to each of these books. It's not often that a book is so strange and different that you are left unable to process its effect, or even understand how you feel about, and one of the important functions of literature is posing challenges your brain hasn't faced before. And all those of challenges are worth facing, even if you face them and only end up knowing the difference between cynicism and hopelessness.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Is Oil Worth the Risk?

The October issue of National Geographic features an in-depth report on the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and opens with the question (in the physical magazine), “Is it [deep water drilling that is] worth the risk?” No. There. Done.

Oh. You wanted a little more. OK. Let's just assume for a moment that burning oil isn't contributing to climate change. And let's also assume just for a minute that the oil available in American accessible deep waters could meaningfully lessen our dependence on foreign oil and free us from problematic relationships with countries where people still get their heads cut off, like Saudi Arabia for example. While we're at it, let's also assume that the research and development of deep water drilling would create or sustain more jobs than would be created or sustained by a transition to a different energy economy, say one with solar panels, wind turbines, and tidal buoys. You know what, let's just go ahead and assume every crazy, ridiculous, inaccurate, short-sighted reason you usually hear given for pursuing deep water drilling is true, because if even if you accept every one of those points right up to the most completely batshit spit in the face of science reasons, deep water oil drilling is still not worth it.

Because even an oil company lobbyist accepts that no more oil is being made. That's definition of a “fossil fuel.” Oil was created by millions and millions of years of intense pressure on prehistoric plants (love to see how a conservative creationist reconciles that timeline) and drilling for more won't make any more. So the oil is going to run eventually. Nothing we can do can make the oil not run out. Oil does not care about Yankee stick-to-itivness or American innovation or anything else. This means that all breakthroughs in drilling technology are delaying tactics not solutions. 

No matter how deep we drill we are going to run out of oil. We might run out in ten years, or fifty years, or five hundred years, but no matter what we do we will run out of oil. And this means that even if drilling technology develops perfect safety with foolproof fail-safes and no environmental impact, it will be millions and probably billions of dollars spent on developing technology we know for a fact will become obsolete. In fact, the longer we drill for oil, the harder it will be to extract, the more money each technological development will cost in order to be effective and the less oil there will be for it to extract. So, if you'll follow this thought experiment to the end, the single most sophisticated oil drilling technology will be developed to extract the last bit of oil left and then it will be instantly useless, as will every oil drilling technology that preceded it. 

So even if all that crazy, wildly illogical, and totally incorrect stuff that people say to defend deep water drilling is true, deep water drilling will still spend billions and billions of dollars on developing technology that is guaranteed to become absolutely worthless. I may not be the most fiscally responsible person in the world (I seem to keep buying books for some reason), but I'm pretty sure that's a waste of money.

So is the risk of additional ecological catastrophe worth pursuing for a big gigantic waste of money? I've ceded proponents of deep water drilling nearly every point they could ask for and deep water drilling is still not the worth the risk, because even if everything works perfectly we still end up with an oil-less economy and a bunch of useless deep water drills. The fact that there is still debate about deep water drilling (and the oil economy in general, but I'll stay focused) shows just how short-sighted so much of our (human probably) decision making really is.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Third Best Season of the Decade or How Bill Hall Became the Most Important Red Sox Player in 2011

OK, maybe Bill Hall in particular won't be the most important player in 2011, but one of the silver linings in a season defined by who did not play, was the excellence of those who really shouldn't have been playing. But first lets go back in the season in the season a little bit.

There was a very brief period of time when the Rex Sox were at about 90% healthy; about two, maybe three weeks total there was a decent approximation of the designed Red Sox taking the field every day. During that time, the Red Sox were at the top of the AL East, which might have been the best division baseball has ever seen. (Since 1995 the AL Wild Card winner has come from the East 12 times, 4 from the West and 1 from the Central). In other words, when the Red Sox fielded the team they intended to field for the season, they were the best team in baseball. But that's not why this was the third best Red Sox season of the decade.

Then the torrent of injuries. At one point both starting catchers were out. Three starting pitchers; Beckett, Bucholtz, and Matzuzaka had a variety of injuries that cost them starts and compromised performances. Jed Lowrie's return from his wrist injury was delayed by mono. Then reigning AL MVP and former rookie of the year Dustin Pedroia went down. Then AL MVP contender Kevin Youkilis went down. Plus the Ellsbury and Cameron.

So, to recap, the Red Sox had rolling injuries in their starting rotation, one third of their outfield, a stretch of games without Victor Martinez or Jason Varitek, a back up playing short stop for the bulk of the season (though at least that was expected for a portion of the season), and their two best players gone for the season. They weren't eliminated from the playoffs until the last week of baseball, and if Papelbon preserved the sweep against the Yankees the Sox might have had a chance to play for the Wild Card in the last series. In other words, an absolutely decimated team was in playoff contention in the highest quality division perhaps in the history of the game until September. This team forced the Yankees to alter their pitching rotation to secure their playoff spot. And let's just for a second imagine they played in the AL West.

Now the obvious way to go with a narrative like this is to talk about the grit and determination of the players, how utility journeymen stepped up and contributed (the aforementioned Bill Hall and Darnell McDonald); how starters played above expectations (did you know Adrian Beltre could hit, because I didn't), and how minor leaguers and prospects demonstrated their ability to play in the bigs (Kalish, Nava, et al.) but that's not the way I'm going to go. I'm going to take this in two different ways and they both argue for the 2011 Red Sox as pre-season world series favorites.

At about the same point that the Red Sox slipped out of legitimate playoff contention, I looked up and realized that the Red Sox had one of the best left-handed starters in the game in John Lester and that Clay Bucholtz had blossomed into a Cy Young contender. That is two legitimate aces who aren't named Beckett, Matzuzaka or Lackey. One of the best starting rotations in the game, saw its two young pitchers blossom into aces. I also noticed the Sox had a top five catcher in Victory Martinez, another MVP contender in Adrian Beltre, the number 2 or 3 young reliever in Daniel Bard. David Oritz can still generate runs and though next year might always be THE year he doesn't perform, I think he's got two more seasons in him. And then there are all the knowns returning from injury. In other words, the Sox on paper at the beginning of the season were World Series contenders and if they are able to return that team to the field they'll be World Series contenders again.

Or, maybe they decide not to. The real forward looking silver lining of this season, is that a whole raft of players proved they could contribute at the big league level. If the Sox decide they want to retool the bullpen over the off-season, or maybe 2011 is the year Papi doesn't have it and they need a new DH, or maybe some big name ends up on a selling team at around the trade deadline. Whatever the reason may be, the Red Sox now have perhaps the biggest pool of talent to draw from in the 2011 trade circuit. A proven utility man like Hall or an exciting young player like Kalish are exactly the kind of players teams usually need to complete a deal for a superstar. And that's how Bill Hall might become the 2011 Red Sox's most important player because he might be the final piece of a trade that brings a difference making superstar to the Red Sox.

There was a lot for the Red Sox to be proud of in how they performed this year and if they win the 2011 World Series, that championship will be based, in many ways, on how they performed in 2010, making 2010 the third best season in the decade.

And it'll be a crime if Tito doesn't get manager of the year. Not topical, I know, and certainly no way to conclude a well-structured essay, but I wasn't going to get another chance to say it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

As Long as You're Not Making Explosives or Household Cleaners No One's Going to Die if You Mess Up the Recipe

Like millions of Americans, I have recipe anxiety. Those numbered, bulletted, sometimes lushly described as though mincing garlic were akin to sculpting of David, steps, instructions, and/or techniques, always look to me, like a numbered, bulletted, sometimes lushly described as though browning onions were akin to pitching a perfect game, list of chances to fail. Every instruction is a potential mistake.

Given this, I, like so many people, perhaps even some of your loved ones or those friends whose Facebook statuses you do not hide, too often select my recipe based on the number of possible mistakes. The fewer the better. What if I add the garlic too soon? What if the chopped vegetables aren't all ½ inch cubes? Are translucent onions the same as translucent other things, or do they have some special magical lucency that transforms light into a noxious tear inducing vapor? And what the hell is al dente anyway, I mean, if you're not slurping it through a straw it's pretty much always “to the teeth,” right? The common response, one could almost say, the natural response, to recipe anxiety is to avoid it entirely. No one is at your house with a gun to your head commanding you to stir fry and there aren't that many chances to mess up a microwave dinner.

I was making this fried potato cake recipe from the Silver Spoon (one of the absolute best cookbooks ever in my humble opinion) and the cakes, well, they wouldn't stay together. I'd followed all the instructions in the recipe as best I could but when I tried to form the shredded potatoes into cakes to pan fry, they just wouldn't stay together. In retrospect, I guess I didn't use potatoes with enough starch. I don't remember what potatoes I used, or, now that I'm on the topic, which are the starchy and which are the less starchy potatoes, but that's what the Internet is for. So, in a stroke of what some might call good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity and others might call desperation, the potatoes, I mashed them.

And, because the Silver Spoon is one of the best cookbooks ever, the mashed potatoes were awesome. And that's when I realized that unless you're making explosives or home cleaners no one is going to die if you mess up the recipe. Sure, you might end up with something unpalatable, or perhaps even inedible, but there is still the opportunity to order that pizza you were thinking of ordering in the first place. If we won any truly lasting practical victory for the American people in the Cold War, it was the opportunity to just screw this disaster of a gumbo and get take out. Furthermore, every mistake is a lesson. You make a bad meal once, but you learn about a flavor combination or a technique combination that you can apply for the rest of your life. And sure, if you're cooking meat, you can certainly mess up the recipe in a way that makes you sick (though thanks to modern agribusiness you're more likely to get salmonella from an innocuous looking bag of spinach, but that's another essay) but if you have any doubts you can just keep cooking whatever it is you're cooking. It might not end up tasty, but it'll be safe.

The point is that the benefits of a home cooked meal greatly outweigh the risks of screwing up a home cooked meal. Not only do you have control (and responsibility) of everything that goes into it allowing you to tailor it to both your tastes and your health concerns, and not only will you deepen your connection with one of the most fundamental aspects of whatever culture the recipe comes from, and not only will you get the satisfaction of having made something, even if you don't end up particularly proud of it (I'm compelled to remember a CD “holder” I made in shop class in high school, roll top and everything, that barely held itself together let alone the dozen CDs as promised by the instructions), you'll also avoid eating processed food. Have you ever read the ingredients of those instant dinners? They're like an instruction manual on how to get heart disease and diabetes and probably rickets or gout or one of those other olde timey sounding diseases of affluence.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the history of 20th century nationhood (I'll make this topical, don't worry) is that fascism, no matter what philosophical superstructure is tossed on top of it, is fundamentally destructive. Whenever you reduce anything complex, and everything in the real world is complex, to unalterable absolutes you set yourself up for some kind of disaster. So don't worry if you give in to recipe anxiety every now and again. I think people should cook from scratch more, but I'm not going to publicly shame you if you eat a Hungry Man Dinner once in a while. (Well, maybe there's a little Hungry Man specific shame, but you get my point.) It's not the occasional microwave dinner that's demolishing the bodily health of our society, but constant microwave dinners. So try to make something tonight. Just remember not to mix the ammonia with the bleach when you clean up.

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Banned Books Week Spiel

A couple of weeks ago libraries, bookstores, and book people around the country celebrated Banned Books Week, an event and organizing concept that draws attention to school districts and public libraries making certain books unavailable to their communities, while celebrating the contribution to our culture made by those books. It is supposed to be a celebration of the right to information and a reminder of the importance of intellectual freedom and in a way it is.

But. There was a time when an ignorant parent, teacher, school board member, city councilor, or other figure with municipal power could ensure with a decent level of confidence that no members of his/her/their community would be damaged by exposure to the offending book. However, a city council can't stop a bookstore from carrying the book and they certainly can't stop someone from ordering the book online. One might argue that it is a bit presumptuous to assume everyone can purchase a banned book if their library doesn't have it, and it is true there are families who can't make rent let alone buy books, but the real problem in that case is not that the book is banned, but that there are families who cannot afford to buy the occasional book. That's another essay over in the politics section. Regardless, it's not as easy as it once was to restrict access to information. And there's no easier way to make a teenager want to read a book than to ban it. Hmm. Maybe I should ban Ulysses.

Oh wait, somebody already has. Just like somebody has banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, Beloved, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Awakening, A Separate Peace... In fact, pretty much every influential important book has been banned or challenged (and let's not get into that strange little phrase “or challenged” that pops up in Banned Books Week material) by someone somewhere who heard something about the book and then flew off the handle before actually reading the book or bothering to consider the context of the story.

I think, more than anything, this shows that some people can be offended by anything and sometimes those very same easily offended people are self-righteous sanctimonious pricks who think they know what other people's children should not be allowed to read. If there were only a way to divert their attention to the assault on our psyches that is contemporary TV advertising, but that's another essay.

Furthermore, no matter how many American classics they ban, they can't ban them all. Maybe they get Slaughterhouse-five, but not Cat's Cradle. They'll get Beloved but miss Sula. And there's a ton of sophisticated YA dealing directly with the challenges of growing up in modern America. A town might get Speak out of their library or curriculum but their kids will find other books. In fact, book banners are fighting a losing battle. Curious children have always and will always be able to find books that speak to their questions about the world and experiences with the world, whether those books conform to some narrow minded adult's conception of “appropriate literature” or not.

Furthermore, book banners have taken a fairly rational idea, extended it to hyperbolic proportions and attached hysterical consequences to it. That rational idea: children do not have the critical apparatus to fully understand some books. For example, I'm not a fan of teaching Moby-Dick in high school because I think most students don't end up with the critical sophistication necessary to effectively engage with the work, but I don't assume students who read Moby-Dick before they're ready are going to start throwing harpoons at obese nurses, I assume they're going to be bored to death and have a terrible reading experience with an absolutely amazing work. Similarly, the millions of teen and pre-teen girls reading the Twilight series bothers me, not because the main female “character” (I almost pulled a muscle throwing the air quotes around that one) is a self-less receptacle for male desire, but because I'm not sure they've acquired the critical apparatus to analyze the value of such a character (And thanks to Suzanne Collins for bringing us Katniss when she did.). That said, I don't believe that every girl is going to turn into Bella if she reads Twilight or that even if girls mimic some of Bella's traits, they will maintain those traits for the rest of their lives. Raise your hand if you are the exact same person you were in middle school. Furthermore, I'm not even sure it's always a bad thing to read books you're not ready for, but that's another essay.

In an odd way there is something affirmative about book banners. Ultimately, the source of all of their ridiculous fear is the assumption that books are powerful. When they ban a book they say that book is capable changing how children think and what they do. And they're right. And I think that's awesome. One does not usually fear the irrelevant. In their own narrow-minded, short-sighted self-righteous profoundly-prickish way, they are telling us that books are doing exactly what books are supposed to do; changing the minds and lives of the people who read them.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010